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The View from the Center
of the Universe

An interview with Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams
by Elizabeth Debold


In the last few decades, the cultural conversation about science and religion has become less a scholarly debate and increasingly like a barroom brawl. Atheists and theists are wrangling on the radio, in print, and on every possible bandwidth. The prize is a big one: Who are we? Where do we come from? Our core identity as humans is at stake. Are we God’s children, or are we random accidents in an indifferent universe? In other words, does our existence matter to something larger than ourselves?

In the midst of this polemical slugfest, something quite remarkable is emerging from a growing chorus of scientists whose love for and appreciation of our creative cosmos may eventually lead beyond this polarization. The Hubble and other space probes have brought us stunningly gorgeous pictures that inspire wonder at what we are a part of: incandescent nebulae that are the cradles of stars and glowing supernovae that forge the elements from which we are formed. The universe is far more vast, explosively creative, eerily beautiful, and mysterious than anyone could ever have imagined. The scale of what we are in the midst of—the vast dark expanses of space, the infinitesimally small distances traced by subatomic particles, and the stretch of spacetime that extends back for billions of light-years—is nothing less than awesome. As astronomer Carl Sagan once said: “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by traditional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

But for such a religion to bind itself to the human heart, it has to tell us how to relate to this overwhelming picture that science shows us. Where do we fit in? Are we merely passive witnesses to the unfolding drama of the distant stars? Most materialist scientists demur at this point, believing, as Sagan did, that although the universe can be central to us, we are not central to it.

That’s why we were more than a little intrigued when Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams’ tour de force of contemporary cosmology, The View from the Center of the Universe, landed in our office some time ago. These authors are saying that human beings actually are central to the cosmos—and that the latest research in science can show us how. They don’t mean that we are at the geographical center of the cosmos but that we are central along a variety of fascinating dimensions that we are only just beginning to be aware of.

This dynamic husband-and-wife team is uniquely qualified to awaken us to a new view of the cosmos. Primack, a noted physicist, was one of the principal originators of Cold Dark Matter theory, which is part of the accepted understanding about how structures form in the universe. Dark matter is invisible stuff that, according to the theory, fills most of the cosmos and exerts a gravitational pull on the matter we do see. In 1988, Primack was made a Fellow of the American Physical Society and has recently served on a National Academy of Science committee to define the next phase of research that NASA should undertake. Abrams is a philosopher, historian of science, lawyer, policy analyst, and songwriter. She has consulted globally on how nations can make intelligent policy decisions in areas where scientific research is crucial but controversial. But it is her interest in the boundary between myth and science that has led to such a fruitful partnership with Primack. For the last decade, the two have co-taught a popular course at the University of California at Santa Cruz called “Cosmology and Culture,” which was the basis for their book.

Primack and Abrams aspire to change culture through this new cosmology. They are on a heroic quest to create a new, scientifically accurate creation story that will inspire us to leap beyond the conflict and division that threatens this planet. “If we intend to navigate Earth’s coming transition . . . with sanity and justice, we will need to inspire high creativity, intense commitment, and immense stores of enthusiasm and raw hope,” they write. “To perform what look like miracles, humans need big and inspiring ideas.”

Abrams and Primack assert that their work can give rise to a new spirituality. According to their definition, to be spiritual means experiencing our connection to the cosmos through scientific understanding. Yet the sheer awe at the miracle of existence that these two committed materialists tap into and convey breaks the boundaries of science and leads us beyond. While they would never use the word “God” themselves, the majesty of their vision brings us in touch with the kind of wonder that humans throughout history have always associated with the timeless realm of the transcendent.

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This article is from
Welcome to the Center of the Universe